It’s been a long and difficult journey to the top of world cricket for Raisibe Ntozakhe.
Aged just five in 2002 when Ntozakhe lost her father, she and her brother had to leave their comfort zone of rural Mokopane in Limpopo for the busy and bustling township of Alexandra in Johannesburg.
The Proteas spinner said goodbye to family, friends and neighbours and gave up all that she knew at that young age to follow her mother, who was already working in Gauteng, to the big city.
It was tough at first, she recalls, as she prepared for a new beginning in unfamiliar surroundings.
"It was a lot to take in at that age especially after what we'd been through,” Ntozakhe says. “But I also had to be brave and so I understood the move was for the betterment of our upbringing because Limpopo was so rural and there were not many opportunities for mum to work and for us to prosper as kids.
“So, she took the tough decision and made the sacrifice for our family. It was tough at first, the changes, the new school, the different cultures, but I adjusted, and life went on.”
Ntozakhe first attended Skeen Primary School in Tsutsumani Village – the school that planted the initials cricket seeds for what has now blossomed into a career of 33 caps for South Africa thus far.
When in Grade 2, she was introduced to the game for the first time through the KFC Mini-Cricket programme, before the Alexandra Cricket Hub, one of more than 50 such centres across the country, became the focal point of her development.
“I didn't really like cricket too much, but at that age I was fascinated by all sports and so I played it, and it grew on me I guess,” the 26-year-old explains. “I was initially the only girl in the team, but I didn't mind it all.
“I played in Grade 2 and 3 at the school, with the Alex Hub also assisting me. And I think that was the start of the journey.”
The Hubs/Regional Performance Centres (RPC) programme are key components of the Cricket South Africa (CSA) development pipeline, striding hard each year to find talented youngsters from within the country’s non-traditional playing communities.
“The school did not play too much of cricket, so when I reached Grade 4, there needed to be somewhere for me to go,” Ntozakhe said. “So, I continued training and playing with the hub. That is where the introduction to hard ball came in. The coach at the time, Harry Maluleke, took me seriously because I was always very committed and determined even though I was the only girl playing amongst the boys at that young age.”
After primary school, she moved on to Pholosho Secondary School for Grade 8 and 9, before her final three years of schooling were completed at Minerva High School where she matriculated.
All of Ntozakhe’s impressive early steps in the game meant she earned the opportunity to attend Gauteng provincial cricket trials at the age of eight – when she was still at Skeen Primary School – after which she was subsequently selected by the Under-13s.
By the age of 10 she was already playing for the Gauteng Under-16 girls, meaning she would travel to camps twice a year with the Gauteng juniors. Then when she was 12 going on 13, Ntozakhe was part of the Under-16 and Under-19 teams of the province and at the tender age of 13, she made her senior provincial debut for Gauteng in 2010. In that same period, she also made the South Africa Schools Team when she was 15.
“It was a difficult journey, but from the time I was six I was always focused on the end goal and that was to play for my country,” said Ntozakhe, who made her debut for the Proteas at the age of 20 in 2017.
After her initial breakthrough, however, she lost her place in the national team before returning after nearly four years in 2022.
“There were ups and downs along the way because certain things don't always happen as you may expect it to,” she adds. “You may at times think you are the best and you are untouchable, but you may also forget that there are others who have the same dream and are doing exactly what you are. So, you need to be patient as well, try to do things differently maybe.
“There are times when you say to yourself that it's not happening even though you are doing the right things. The dream is just not being fulfilled, that really tests you and makes you question yourself and makes you even think about quitting.
“At this point it's quite important to be speaking to the right people who advise you well. They tell you that things don't always go your way, but it doesn't mean you need to throw in the towel. I had to wait and when it did happen, I was humbled, I was privileged, and I was honoured to wear green and gold.”